Staying a Step Ahead
The diversity of ORNL's research program is a key to global security challenges.
The question increasingly shapes the agenda of one of America's largest research institutions. How does the United States meet the technological demands of anticipating and defending against constantly evolving threats to the nation's security? "We need to have more smart people working the problem than the bad guys. It's that simple," says Brent Park, who heads ORNL's Global Security Directorate (GSD). Park's organization is responsible for matching the needs of customers in the national and homeland security community with ongoing projects in the laboratory's broad research portfolio, a job made more challenging by the dynamic nature of both national security requirements and the laboratory's research portfolio. As security threats become more sophisticated, anticipation and constant learning are required to stay a step ahead of America's adversaries. Park believes only research organizations with the depth and diversity of national laboratories have the resources and agility to quickly respond to evolving security needs.
Park's organization serves as the catalyst for research projects funded by customers working in the areas of defense, homeland security, nuclear nonproliferation and intelligence. Perhaps surprisingly, these projects are not limited to a handful of security-related disciplines but rather represent a variety of research capabilities from environmental sciences to nanotechnology. At one time or another, GSD has partnered with every research division at ORNL. Park's staff works with any group whose research—regardless of its original purpose—demonstrates the potential to meet a national security need. Sometimes the process involves recognizing ready-made solutions that GSD customers can adapt with little additional development. Increasingly, however, GSD's emphasis is on identifying promising results much earlier in the research process in an effort to fast-track the development of beneficial security technologies. As a result of this proactive approach to matching nascent research with security needs, GSD is significantly expanding the directorate's role as a supplier of research and development opportunities for the remainder of ORNL's research program.
As part of these efforts, the laboratory also provides seed money to jump-start projects judged to be of particular interest to the national security community. Such funding was recently used to develop a technology that extracts water from diesel exhaust. The project's goal is to provide military personnel in remote locations with a source of water. Park notes that a significant number of wartime casualties are the result of attacks on vehicles or aircraft delivering supplies like food and water. This water-extraction technology thus has the potential to save lives by lowering the supply requirements of soldiers in the field. "When we see the opportunity to save a life, we go out of our way to make it happen. The Department of Defense has expressed great interest in this technology," he adds.
To continue this kind of success, Park's organization is expanding its collaboration with ORNL's research organizations by rolling out large-scale initiatives in several areas.
The largest of these initiatives is a collaborative effort with the laboratory's Computational Sciences and Engineering Division in the area of cybersecurity. Park says the focus of this partnership is to develop diagnostic tools that enable researchers to use advanced modeling and simulation capabilities to pinpoint vulnerabilities in computer networks—allowing them to be strengthened before they are exploited. The demand for sophisticated cybersecurity tools has sharply increased among military, intelligence and homeland security organizations, as well as among state and local governments. "Of course this work also could be applied in the industrial sector to strengthen and protect private information systems," Park observes. In fact, part of the initiative involves collaborating with private companies to set up information systems that serve as targets for computer hackers. These systems provide researchers with real-world data on how computer networks and network administrators react to cyber attacks. The data is used to improve GSD's ability to apply ORNL's high-performance computing capabilities to simulating cyber attacks with a high degree of authenticity.
To complement these efforts, researchers are also developing a modular, scalable testbed concept that combines simulated attacks on real-world network components with a modeling and simulation system. The system uses data from the test bed to simulate the effects of cyber attacks on a range of larger and more complex systems. As a result, the simulations' reactions to cyber threats are based on data gathered from actual systems faced with realistic cybersecurity threats. This combination of real-world hardware and network simulation enables researchers to evaluate cybersecurity threats on a variety of authentic network configurations quickly and with less cost.
"We sometimes need to evaluate threats quickly to determine whether, for example, a threat against a computer network or a 'smart' electrical grid has a realistic chance of succeeding," Park says. "This system enables us to do that." He observes that the impact of a successful attack could have farreaching implications for the nation's military command and control system, the stock market and the business sector, that depends heavily on integrated computer networks.
Another of GSD's high-level initiatives is in the area of nuclear forensics. The science of tracing the source of nuclear materials, nuclear forensics is a critical tool in the effort by governments to control the proliferation and use of bomb-grade materials. This expertise would also be critical to investigating the aftermath of the detonation of a dirty bomb—a non-nuclear explosive device designed to contaminate an area with nuclear material. Drawing on the laboratory's decades of nuclear research, as well as the expertise from ORNL's Nuclear Science and Engineering, Physical Sciences, and Energy and Environmental Sciences directorates, GSD is applying ORNL's R&D capabilities to meeting a variety of current nuclear forensics challenges.
Park explains that the primary concern for the U.S. is the ability to control and track the movements of HEU, or highly enriched uranium. Forensic researchers are often asked to identify the origin of HEU and how was it processed. The answers require researchers to apply techniques that include nondestructive test methods, such as highresolution aerial photography and analysis of radiation detector data, and destructive testing that involves chemically analyzing small samples of material. The process can involve chemists, physicists and nuclear engineers. Fortunately, nearly seven decades of experience with nuclear fuel cycle research provides ORNL scientists with an exceptional array of assets to understand the nuances of nuclear material processing. "This is an immensely valuable capability," Park says. "ORNL aspires to be at the forefront of the world's forensic research, particularly with regard to uranium."
Park believes a lot of misconceptions remain about intelligence R&D. He explains that while the results may be used differently, research and development conducted for intelligence applications is no different than that conducted for other programs at ORNL. "The process always starts with a challenge we need to meet," Park says. "We get creative minds together to create a research plan. We then perform experiments, apply modeling and simulation and finally develop the specific tools required to address the challenge."
"Not surprisingly, this research is often found in the 'sweet spot' of ORNL's capabilities," Park says. "Global Security and our sponsors apply ORNL's climate change science, applied materials, systems engineering expertise and our broad portfolio of sensor research to solve intelligence-related requirements. Only the end application is different. The reason the research is sensitive is because the nation's security is at stake. It's a sad reality, but there are bad people out there, and we need to be able to counter their threats."
Restricting the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials is among the most critical elements of the nation's defense. By being proactive and engaging with international partners, GSD plays a key role in removing special nuclear material that has the potential to find its way onto the black market and into the hands of terrorists. GSD helps to safely dispose of this material, including arranging for down-blending into nuclear reactor fuel. ORNL's research in this growing sector relies heavily on extensive experience with uranium, expertise in the area of detectors, and the overall nuclear technology expertise the laboratory has sustained since the Manhattan Project.
Park predicts that the next frontiers for nonproliferation research will include the use of unmanned aerial and under water vehicles to monitor and detect the movement of special nuclear materials. "The scenarios in the air and underwater are quite different," Park says. "We are looking at better ways to help protect our nation's borders and identify nuclear materials. Likewise, we are working with a range of national and local agencies to try to make a contribution in these areas. Ultimately, we hope to combine our modeling and simulation abilities with the laboratory's geographic information system capabilities and consequence management tools as yet another way of enhancing America's border security."
Department of Homeland Security
Growing recognition of ORNL's unique nonproliferation credentials is reflected in GSD's business volume in a variety of areas. In the last few years, GSD's work for the Department of Homeland Security has grown substantially, increasing from $3 million in 2004 to $50 million in 2010. Among other things, the funding provides support for radiation detector testing and the development of a range of radiation detection technologies. Park notes that GSD is also supporting other research efforts aimed at determination of motivation and intent, threat assessment and other activities that draw on ORNL core competencies.
Department of Defense
The widest application of ORNL capabilities is arguably in the defense sector. During the recent visit of a U.S. Navy admiral to examine technologies that could be of use to the Department of Defense, he was particularly interested in the climate research being conducted using the laboratory's high-performance computing resources. The research is supported by both the Energy and Environmental Sciences and Computing and Computational Sciences directorates. The organizations, with ostensibly quite different areas of expertise, are working closely together on the climate initiative. "The partnership is a good illustration of how GSD's Department of Defense (DoD) program office is leveraging the entire laboratory's assets," says Park.
In addition to climate research, GSD has active DoD programs using biological systems science applications, chemical and molecular science, and numerous applied materials science and engineering applications. The projects range from biological-agent sensing to cooling the gun barrels of automatic weapons. Park says it is hard to imagine that a sponsor could receive the breadth and depth of scientific support for their mission from any other single institution.
Responding to the scope and complexity of current national security threats requires the unique facilities and assets of America's national laboratories. The threats are often ones that need to be detected, analyzed and evaluated in real time. As problems of national and global security become increasingly difficult, Park foresees partnerships with other laboratories, largely because of time constraints and the fact that no single institution has the capacity to solve every challenge.
"The sooner we can deliver solutions to the field," Park says, "the better off everyone in the country will be. Delivering solutions on a timetable of years is just no longer good enough. Our mission is to be relevant to national security, to national defense and to the needs of peace-loving people all over the world. Science has a distinct role to play. We need to be at the forefront of finding research solutions, and we need to be proactive. After all, in this arena there's little benefit to solving a problem after the fact."